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Salamander Hunting

Tis the season, for those of an amphibious bent. The salamanders are running. In an age-old ritual of early spring, these largely subterranean dwellers emerge with the first warm rains, and make their wriggly peregrinations overland to breeding pools. There, they meet, greet, do some other things, and then deposit egg masses.

Hit it right, and you'll find plenty of salamander action, and if you've not done a nocturnal salamander hunt before, well, you don't know what you're missing.

Night before last was awesome, and I got some really good images of some spectacular beasts, and some decent vid, too. I'll slap some of that up here soon, but first, a few shots from last Saturday night in Adams County.

Some of us were the recipients of Steve and Marian Moeckel's hospitality, and visited their new digs back up in a rural hollow. A small intermittent stream, strewn with rocks, courses right by the cabin, and we did a bit of rock-flipping out there. Bingo! Several beautiful Southern Two-lined Salamanders, Eurycea cirrigera, were uncovered. These are surprisingly common, but one must check under streamside rocks to find them. We also have the practically identical Northern Two-lined Salamander, E. bislineata, in Ohio. The latter is found in the northern half of the state, roughly; in southern reaches it is the above species.

Another very cool little wriggler inhabiting the Moeckel's stream was this, the Northern Ravine Salamander, what we used to call Plethodon richmondi. Greg Lipps tells me the scientific name has been changed to Plethodon electromorphus, as genetic work has revealed this one to be distinct from more southerly Ravines. These Northern types were split from Southern types, and this one was named for laboratory processes that resulted in the split. Whatever, it is a handsome little animal, very long and attenuate.

Note the length of the tail in comparison to the total length, and those tiny little legs. Quick little buggers, though, when they want to be.

Later, after darkness settled, bats were on the wing and the woodcock were twittering and peenting, we set out to find some mole salamanders. These are well-named: salamanders in the genus Ambystoma live 99% of their lives under the ground, emerging only briefly to court, mate, and reproduce in vernal pools. This is a Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum, one of the most striking amphibians in the United States and a species utterly dependent upon healthy woodland vernal pools.

Eye level with the Spotted Salamander, in an Adams County vernal pool. They are pretty good sized, with some whoppers taping out at over seven inches.

Rather a Plain Jane, this one. It's a Jefferson Salamander, Ambystoma jeffersonianum. They are often our most common mole salamander in the areas in which they occur, and are part of a maddening hybrid complex. More on that later - I saw plenty of these crosses the other night and have good photos and video that I'll share later.

This species is named for Jefferson College in Pennsylvania. The college was named for an accomplished early naturalist who we've probably all heard of, Thomas Jefferson. Thus, in a roundabout way this subsurface earthworm-eater commemorates one of our greatest presidents.

Jefferson Salamander larva. This is the earliest of the mole salamanders to make their way to the breeding pools, often when it is still cold enough to crust pond edges with ice. Thus, they also get the jump on the other species, and the Jefferson larva precede the others. This small pool was full of them. In short order I saw a hundred or more. Note the feathery gills behind the head. They'll live in the pool until about early July, at which point the young salamanders will assume the subterranean life os the adults. It's vital that fishless pools are available, as most fish are voracious predators that would make quick work of these salamander fry.


Jason Folt said…
Jim - Great stuff and I am super jealous. After enjoying the spring migrations in Ohio for a few years, I still have yet to see any activity in the colder SE Michigan this year and am totally bummed. Soon...

What makes you so sure of your A. jeffersonanium larval ID? In years past the jeffs have bred during warm spells in Jan/Feb but I was under the impression the winter was pretty cold this year and I hadn't heard of any breeding activity yet down that way. The much more likely ID would seem to be A. opacum, which are fairly common in Adams Co. and breed in the fall to get a leg up on the competition in the spring. Usually when I see larva already this early a safe bet is opacum...

I am looking forward to seeing some pics of polyploids.

Take care,

Tom said…
Jim- Sweet salamandering. Gotta love these fascinating creatures.

Jared Mizanin said…
What's up, Folt! From what I've read, I too, would agree on A. opacum (how do I utilize italics here?) but I'll admit my only experience with larval Marbled's is from Lake Co. with Avram.

Excellent post, Jim. I had some decent movement up here in Cuyahoga Co. the last few days (Spotted & Jefferson Salamanders, Red-spotted Newt, Spring Peeper, and Wood Frog). Adams Co. must be great for a nice assortment of herps; I know there's some cool snakes and salamanders I'd love to see down that way.

Thanks for sharing!
dAwN said…
Howdee Jim,
Great nightime shots of these little critters!
thanks for all the info.
Jim McCormac said…
Glad you all like the salamanders! I'll have some more action on here, from another adventure, soon.

Marbled Salamander larvae? Could be, but I don't think so. Although no one I know has been able to tell me how to tell them from other similar Ambystoma larvae.

Anyway, the pool where those photos were taken is not known to host Marbleds. I was going to make a special trip to another vernal pool that night where I knew I could find Marbled larvae, but ran out of time.

Also, most of the larvae were very small - half an inch or less. Marbled would be, or should be, considerably larger than that by now, I'd think, and that's what others who frequently check these pools indicated too.

Adams County and area is a different world from the northern reaches of Ohio in terms of temperature, and I don't think it'd be irregular to have young Jeffs already at that stage down there.

Jason Folt said…
Jim - I meant to inquire about the size, that is a useful piece of info. I would definitely call them jeffs if they were that small. I am actually most familiar with Ambystoma movements from the southern part of the state, specifically Adams, Scioto and Vinton Cos. The past few years seem to have had much milder winters and I personally saw breeding of jeffs in Adams Co from early Jan/Feb. I had thought with the much harsher winter this year it seemed like no real migrations had occurred down there yet. Looking back through my emails I had a couple buddies observe jeffs moving and in ponds on Feb 11th. Most data shows a incubation period of 4-14 weeks for jeffs, depending on water temperature, so that would also support them as jeffs.

Small Ambystoma larva can be very hard to tell apart, at least to me. Size seems to be one of the easiest differentiating characteristics, especially this early. I would agree that marbleds would be bigger by now. One thing I use is that marbleds usually have a row of light spots on their sides, and if you want to get real anal you can count costal grooves. The spots can even usually be seen when they are pretty small. I have some shots of larger jeff and marbled that show some differences, especially the spots, if you are interested.

Brandon wrote a short key to Larval Salamander IDs back in the 60s. I have the PDF if you want me to send it to you, although it might be repeated in Pfingsten/Downs. I also vaguely remember a salamander ID website based out of the SE, but can't seem to find it in my links/favorites.

Good stuff...

Jim McCormac said…
Thanks for the tips about larval salamander ID, Jason. I'll pull out Pfingsten and Downs and see if the info is in there. I don't see the larvae often, and don't know much about them.

But now that I know where some great breeding pools for Tigers are, I want to go back and check the youngsters out later in the season.

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